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    It’s that time of the season where playoff hopefuls are threatening to sink or swim. Every game down the stretch matters, especially ones against opposing playoff contenders where one game can change the course of the season.

    The eighth-place Wolves play host to the ninth-place Clippers in a battle that could give Minnesota some comfortable breathing room, or mount some additional pressure. Two games currently separate these two teams, and the Wolves also carry the tie-breaker giving them some extra cushion.

    A win here would put the Clippers three games back with 10 to play, a steep hill to climb especially considering the upcoming schedule. Between this contest, and the two future games still ahead versus the 10th-place Nuggets, the Wolves can effectively control their own destiny.

    If they manage to sweep all three of those games, the Wolves would likely need to win just half of their remaining games to sit comfortably in the playoff picture. With games against the likes of the Hawks, Knicks, Mavericks and Grizzlies (twice), that seems attainable.

    First things first, though, the Wolves have to take care of business. It’s true the Wolves are 3-0 versus the Clippers this season, but circumstances this time around are drastically different.

    The Wolves faced off with the Clippers three times before January 23. Just one week later, on January 29, the Clippers made a franchise-altering move by trading Blake Griffin to the Detroit Pistons for a package of assets.

    The moved looked more like a signal for a rebuild. Getting rid of Griffin’s mega-contract freed up cap space, and each player seemed more like a stop-gap than long-term assets (no disrespect to the players). The deal seemed more about jettisoning the long-term money and the first-round pick they received.

    Similar to the Chris Paul trade this past offseason, the Clippers seemingly were more interested in getting what they could out of an expensive veteran and maximizing their value before it depreciated (in Paul’s case guaranteeing the Rockets he would opt to stay with them over testing the free agent market, and Griffin’s case trading him before age creeps up and his contract looks… worse).

    In both cases the Clippers received a bevy of players to off-set the huge salaries of Paul and Griffin, most in the final year or two of their contract. None were expected to be long-term pieces for the franchise, and while a few were projected to provide the Clippers with some short-term success, it was mostly about just filling cap space to make the trades work.

    The Clippers were going to be worse without Paul and the first half of the season proved that, so when Griffin was traded a similar downturn even further down the depths of the Western Conference was expected. Armed with three first rounders and tons of cap space in the future, the rebuild (tank) was in full-force.

    That didn’t happen, or at least not as anticipated.

    Lou Williams became an offensive sensation for the Clippers and inked a three-year extension shortly before the trade deadline at well-below market value. Tobias Harris, perennially unheralded and always solid, took his game up a notch averaging over 20 points per game in LA and career-best shooting. Montrezl Harrell, who they received in the Paul trade, has averaged 14.3 points per game on 68.2 percent shooting off the bench since late January.

    The team’s offensive rating has jumped three points since the Griffin trade, while the defense has remained rather consistent in the middle of the pack, leading to the eighth-best net rating in the NBA and a 12-8 record since the trade.

    Clipper stalwarts like DeAndre Jordan and Austin Rivers have maintained value or even improved, especially Rivers who’s enjoying his best season and has a .560 true shooting percentage since the trade.

    Add in the fact that the Clippers still have three draft picks (including Detroit’s, which is creeping into the top-10) and huge cap space (thanks to Lou Williams’ discount), the Clippers are in a comfortable position to keep on winning while building for the future.

    They are in a completely different scenario than the last time they met with the Wolves. The Wolves were, unknowingly at the time, at the end of their scorching stretch and facing a downturn. While the Clippers have been hot since the last meeting, the Wolves have been anything but with an 8-11 record and -0.2 net rating.

    Key Matchups:

    It will be intriguing to see how the Clippers deploy their defense. Recently teams have been shifting their smaller guard over to Nemanja Bjelica and their taller wing over to Andrew Wiggins. The reasoning is that they know Bjelica won’t post up smaller defender (Beli posts up just 1.5 percent of the time), while Wiggins will (9.7 percent of the time).

    Bjelica isn’t the type of physical player to take advantage of the mismatch, while Wiggins is more likely to attack the paint with a smaller, weaker defender. Wiggins is at his best when he’s attacking the paint, and teams know this. So when they bring a more physical player at him, he’s more likely to settle for mid-range jumpers, which takes away his effectiveness.

    In this case, expect to see Sindarius Thornwell, who’s been one of the Clippers’ best defenders, glued to Wiggins, with Rivers, or perhaps Milos Teodosic on Bjelica.

    The biggest problem, though, could be Sweet Lou Williams. Coming off the bench is especially detrimental if the Wolves continue to roll Tyus Jones, Derrick Rose and Jamal Crawford out there together, which has been a defensive disaster. The three-man lineup has a 145 defensive rating over four games.

    Sweet Lou could have a field day.

    Lineups:

    Jeff Teague – PG
    Andrew Wiggins – SG
    Nemanja Bjelica – SF
    Taj Gibson – PF
    Karl-Anthony Towns – C

    vs.

    Milos Teodosic – PG
    Austin Rivers – SG
    Sindarius Thornwell – SF
    Tobias Harris – PF
    DeAndre Jordan – C

    Injuries:

    Jimmy Butler (knee) – OUT

    Patrick Beverley (knee) – OUT
    Avery Bradley (groin) – OUT
    Danilo Gallinari (hand) – OUT
    Tobias Harris (illness) – ACTIVE
    Tyrone Wallace (personal) – QUESTIONABLE

    Media:

    Where: Target Center, Minneapolis, MN

    When: 8:00 ET/7:00 CT

    How: Fox Sports North

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